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01/30/08 10:00 AM ET

Around the Horn: Rotation

Giants young staff looking to join National League's elite

The following is the fifth in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Starting rotation.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants proved last season that solid starting pitching wasn't enough to guarantee success. This year, the rotation hopes to be more than just solid -- an improvement which, if achieved, could lead the ballclub back toward respectability.

San Francisco certainly seems to have the makings of a rotation which could rank among the National League's elite.

Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum are among the hardest-throwing and fastest-rising right-handers in the Majors. Former American League Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito should feel more comfortable after a year of adjustment. Noah Lowry compensates for a shortage of velocity with an excess of victories. All are 29 or younger.

"This division has some good pitching, but I think we probably have the best of it," said center fielder Aaron Rowand, whose decision to sign a five-year, $60 million contract with the Giants was partly due to the strength of their rotation.

The best could be yet to come for Cain, who deserved much better than the 7-16 record he compiled last season. Cain ranked 10th in the NL with a 3.65 ERA, limited opponents to a .235 batting average and amassed 22 quality starts (outings of six innings or more with three or fewer earned runs allowed) in 32 games. But that was offset by his run support (3.51), second-lowest in the Majors behind St. Louis' Kip Wells (3.43).

Lincecum quickly proved why the Giants picked him 10th overall in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft. Combining a searing fastball with an arresting curveball, he led NL rookies with 150 strikeouts in only 146 1/3 innings, while finishing 7-5 with a 4.00 ERA in 24 starts. Wary of taxing Lincecum's arm, the Giants excused him from pitching during the season's final two weeks. Desperate to improve their offense, the Giants briefly considered trading Lincecum to Toronto for outfielder Alex Rios before deciding to maintain their pitching surplus.

Weathering the exposure caused by his seven-year, $126 million contract -- the largest ever given to a pitcher and the biggest in Giants history -- Zito staggered to an 11-13 record and a 4.53 ERA, both career worsts. However, the left-hander began to thrive later in the season when he finally relaxed, posting a 3-2 record with a 3.10 ERA in his last nine starts. Like Cain, Zito also endured poor offensive backing, as the Giants scored more than two runs for him in only 14 of his 33 starts and mustered one or fewer runs for him 11 times.

San Francisco Giants
Catchers: Molina's durability a plus
Corner IF: Ortmeier has edge at first
Middle IF: Second base up for grabs
Outfielders: Youngsters to compete
Starters: Youth is served
Bullpen: Youngsters will be key
Bench: Roster crunch in outfield

Lowry, 14-8 with a 3.92 ERA last year, has been the Giants' leading winner in two of the past three seasons. The left-hander struggled with command, walking 87 batters in 156 innings, but compensated by coaxing 25 double-play grounders, fifth-most in the NL. Lowry has been the constant subject of trade speculation, but tightness in his left forearm, which sidelined him for the season's final month, may have dissuaded other teams from pursuing him.

Kevin Correia, 27, and Jonathan Sanchez, 25, are the leading candidates for the fifth starter's spot. Correia excelled after moving from the bullpen to the rotation for last season's final six weeks, finishing 3-1 with a 2.54 ERA and a .222 opponents' average in eight starts. Sanchez has started only eight times in 60 Major League appearances in 2006-07, but proved his aptitude for the role in the Minors. Despite a 1-5 record and a 5.88 ERA with the Giants last year, he demonstrated his potential by striking out 62 in 52 innings.

Left-hander Patrick Misch (2-5, 2.30 ERA at Triple-A Fresno, 0-4, 4.24 ERA with San Francisco) and non-roster right-hander Victor Santos also could receive chances to start in Spring Training.

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.